Rent This Book!

I’ve been struck this start of the school year by the proliferation of textbook rental outfits here in Bloomington, Indiana and elsewhere.  Locally there’s TXTBookRental Bloomington, which brokers exclusively in rented course texts, as well as TIS and the IU Bookstore (operated by Barnes & Noble), both of whom sell books in addition to offering rental options.  The latter also just launched a marketing campaign designed to grow the rental market.  Further away there’s Amazon.com, which isn’t only offering “traditional” textbook rentals but also time-limited Kindle books.  These are “pay only for the exact time you need” editions that disappear once the lease expires.reteks.ru

There’s been a good deal of enthusiasm about textbook rentals.  Many see them as a welcome work-around to the problem of over-inflated textbook prices, about which many people, including me, have been complaining for years.  Rentals help to keep the price of textbooks comparatively low by allowing students the option of not having to invest fully, in perpetuity, in the object.  Indeed, the rental option recognizes that students often share an ephemeral relationship with their course texts.  Why bother buying something outright when you need it for maybe three or four months at most?

My question is: are textbook rentals simply a boon for college students, or are there broader economic implications that might complicate — or even undercut — this story?

I want to begin by thinking about what it means to “rent” a textbook, since, arguably, students have been doing so for a long time.  When I was an undergraduate back in the early 1990s, I purchased books at the start of the semester knowing I’d sell many of them back to the bookstore upon completion of the term.  Had I bought these books, or was I renting them?  Legally it was the former, but effectively, I believe, it was the latter.  I’d paid not for a thing per se but for a relationship with a property that returned to the seller/owner once a period of time had elapsed.  That sounds a lot like rental to me.

So let’s assume for the moment that the rental of textbooks isn’t a new phenomenon but rather something that’s been going on for decades.  What’s the difference between then and now?  Buyback.  Under the old rental system you’d get some money for your books if your decided you didn’t want to keep them.  Under the new régime you get absolutely nothing.  Granted, it wasn’t uncommon for bookstores to give you a pittance if you decided to sell back your course texts; more often than not they’d then go on re-sell the books for a premium, adding insult to injury.  Nevertheless, at least you’d get something like your security deposit back once the lease had expired.  Now the landlord pockets everything.

Some industrious student needs to look into the economics of these new textbook rental schemes.  Is it cheaper to rent a course text for a semester, or do students actually make out better in the long run if they purchase and then sell back?

If I had to speculate, I’d say that booksellers wouldn’t be glomming on to the latest rental trend if it wasn’t first and foremost in their economic self-interest — even if they’re representing it otherwise.

Coming next week: textbook rentals, part II: what happens when books cease being objects that ordinary people own and accumulate?

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